Friday 6 February 2015


It has been almost four months now since we have been living in Casperia, a stern, earth-tone castle town about 80 minutes by car northeast of Rome in the Sabine Hills. 

We have been visiting this breathtakingly beautiful, yet under-appreciated and relatively unvisited part of Italy since 2009 when we discovered it online quite by chance while doing a Google image search of hills towns in Lazio. 

Air view of Casperia courtesy of Ugo Colalelli
After a number of visits which increased in length over the years from a week to two weeks to a month, it became increasingly clear to us that Casperia and the Sabina had become a second home... a home of the heart, as it were... We had not only fallen in love with the snake and ladder maze of cobbled steps and stone tower houses that is Casperia, but we had been fortunate enough to make some very significant friendships in Sabina. 

Long story short, by the spring of 2014 we were looking for a place in which to stay here long-term. By the end of our month stay in Casperia we had found a house inside its historic centre, an apartment in a stone house complex that dates as far back as the 1600s at least but may in fact be older. The windows from the bedroom and living room/library look out west over the Tiber Valley and have breathtaking views of Monte Soratte...

 enigmatic mountain that was sacred to the Etruscans, Faliscans, Sabines, and later to the ancient Romans.

The late Spring and Summer of 2014 was spent getting our house in Vancouver ready for tenants and jumping through the various hoops necessary to get our Elective Residency Visa from the Italian consulate.

Since our arrival in September, we have settled into village life here. We wake to the sound of church bells at 7am, eat a simple "Canadian" breakfast of yoghurt, nuts, cereal and a banana... on weekends we have a frittata or sometimes even sourdough pancakes... In the mornings we often go on long walks in the country exploring the strade bianche or "white roads" that branch off from the paved roads and disappear into the forests on the crests of the hills. 

We have a lot of friends here, mostly Italian, but we have also met a number of wonderful people from Britain, mostly from England and Wales, that we enjoy spending time with.

One of our friends, Maria, was born in England to Italian immigrant parents but moved to Italy in her youth where she married her husband Paolo and raised two children... Anyway, Maria has a group of wonderful friends from her time in Catholic school back in England... A number of these friends have gone in together to rent the house just outside the Porta Romana that Richard and I rented in March of 2014. 

One set of these friends, a wonderful couple from Melton named Duffy and Colin, were interested in going on a walk with me to see some Roman ruins just west of Casperia. 

This is an account of a very different history walk than the ones I do in Vancouver, but it was a history walk all the same. I'll start with what I see walking out my door.

Our Vancouver-born cat Smokey surveying his medieval surroundings.

We live in an apartment in a grey stone building on Via Latini inside the castle walls, high up near the crest of the hill on which Casperia was built starting sometime in the late 900s. The apartment block is probably only 400 to 500 years old though...   

Casperia bird's eye view courtesy Google Maps

To get from our house to the Porta Romana outside where Colin and Kathy's house is there are a number of route options. The most direct route is to turn right from our door and climb a few steps to where Via Latini meets Via Casperia, the main route that connects San Giovanni Battista, Casperia's parish church at the top of the hill (you can see the shadow of the church's romanesque stone tower near the white of the small piazza in the centre of the town in the photo above) with Piazza del Comune (which is the large whitish square below and slightly to the right in the photo above).  You follow the basalt cobbled steps of Via Casperia... 

...down to Piazza del Comune which of course takes its name from the fact that the municipal offices are in a palazzo that faces on to this piazza. Up until the 1970 and 1980s, this piazza was the commercial heart of Casperia. Most of the doors facing the piazza were of commercial enterprises... There was a bank, a barber shop, a macelleria (butcher shop), a tabaccheria (tobacconist) and an alimentari (grocery store) among others. This traditional commercial centre went into decline as a result of the drastic post-war population drop in Casperia's historic centre as people moved from Casperia to Rome and other centres in Italy in search of new opportunities... opportunities and jobs that the old hill town could not offer them.  

Palazzo del Comune underneath which remains a huge medieval cistern to catch rain water  

The second photo below shows the location of Piazza del Comune in the top quarter.  Below the grey limestone of the cobbles of the piazza still remains a giant cistern to catch rain water, a relic from the time when rain water was the only source of drinking and other water used in the hill town. Many of the multi-storeyed stone tower houses that line the piazza have sections of the outer walls pierced with holes to encourage pigeons and swifts to nest there.  

The eggs and flesh of these birds was an important source of protein for the people of Casperia and other Sabine hill towns from the time of their foundation up until the 1950s and even the 1960s. A clever wooden trap door behind the nest area allowed owners of the house to raid the nests for eggs or unsuspecting birds when necessary. 

From the Piazza del Comune my route out to the Porta Romana continues south along the straight dark line of the basalt cobbled Via Tomassoli (below) which then takes a sharp right down some steps and slaloms down to a large gate that connects to Piazza Umberto I.  

This bird's eye view of Casperia shows clearly the differently coloured cobbled streets: dark basalt and lighter lime stone

During the turbulent middle ages and early renaissance, this gate would have had a solid door that could be barred as a second line of defence in the event of a successful assault on the Porta Romana.

In fact, the whole space defined by the two gates is a large killing field, called a trappolatoia in Italian. The stairway of thirty odd cobbled steps that we trudge up every day with our groceries was specifically designed to create a situation where an invading army would be crowded together in a narrow space over which defending forces could rain down arrows, rocks, boiling oil, etc from all sides. In fact Piazza Umberto I, the open space above and beside these steps, is still called by its old name by many residents, Piazza Macello―Macello meaning "slaughter" or "massacre".

There are only two ways in and out of the old fortified centro storico or historic centre of Casperia and those are its two fortified gates. The main gate is the Porta Romana, the gate that faces the road to Rome. The other gate is the Porta Reatina, also known as the Porta Santa Maria, that faces the road to Rieti, the ancient Sabine and later Roman town east across the mountains which is the capital of the province in which we live. 

Photo of the Porta Reatina courtesy of the Comune of Casperia website
Though many of Casperia's old town's inhabitants have joined the internet age, the town notice boards at both gates ensure that everyone coming in and out of town is aware of important town news, be it announcements about tax payments, water shut offs, cultural and food festivals, deaths and funerals, etc.

Posters at the Porta Romana announce cultural and culinary events, as well as a death and funeral
In the ten minutes it has taken me to walk from our house near the top of the hill to just outside the Porta Romana I have in fact travelled 1000 years forward through time, from 10th Century, when the rural population  of the surrounding farmlands escaped to the top of this hill and built the original nucleus of this fortified town to be safe from marauding Saracens, down through the late middle ages, renaissance, and out to the modern age of cars and motorcycles. As I exit the Porta Romana, one last reminder of the deadly design of this town is a little keyhole shaped hole in the stone wall. This is an archibugiera, or arquebus hole, through which  old Aspra's defenders could aim their primitive firearms and shoot at the gate's attackers.

As mentioned earlier, the apartment that Colin and Kathy are renting with their friend Deirdre is on the second floor of a stone house just outside the Porta Romana. We rented this apartment in March of 2014. It is so great to have friends living there... the wonderful memories continue.

Attached just above Colin and Kathy's door is this antique street name sign. 

Gugliemmo Marconi, of course, was the Italian inventor famous for his pioneering work in long distance radio transmission. A true Italian hero, his name appears on many city streets signs across Italy.

Cathy and Colin are ready waiting for me. We head down Via Marconi to Casperia's hub of activity, Piazzale Odo Valeriani. Enroute, there is a small fountain on the right with a sign advertising Casperia's much vaunted status as a Bandiere Arancione, or "Orange Flag" town with respect to tourism attractions and natural environment. 

Fountain on Via Marconi. Note the tile roof behind the fountain. The town's old public laundry is still under that roof.

I have just recently learned that behind this fountain was the lavatoio, the old communal laundry­­­­—a large shallow tank with a wide sloping stone brim around which the town's women would do their washing and catch up on the latest news. This communal laundry was in use right up until the 1980s when it was closed by the municipality. 

You may think, Hooray! Modernization! Those poor women must have been overjoyed to be finally brought out of the cold into the warmth and comforts of the 20th century! But in fact, it was not so. When the Comune announced the closure, a petition was circulated by a number of the townswomen and most of the women in town signed it, but the lavatoio was closed just he same. 

We have to remember that gathering, working and talking at the  communal laundry was a way of life for women in Casperia for centuries. It was social networking and community building and cleaning clothes all at the same time...  A number of months back, we were walking out in the country to the north of town along the Via Santa Maria where we found a roadside stone laundry being used by one of the women living nearby. She was all alone in the old roadside laundry busy at work.  wondered what her story was. Perhaps she was the last  stubborn member of a now diminished or disappeared circle of friends. I don't know, we didn't pry, but there she was, clinging to her traditions and cherished her memories.  

"Welcome to Casperia - old Aspra" A sign outside the Conad alimentari on Piazzale Odo Valeriani 

From Piazzale Odo Valeriani we turned west and followed the Via Roma—all roads lead to Rome—down into the countryside. Our route to Paranzano, shown in blue dots in the map below, takes us along the base of a hill on which the town cemetery was built. I visited this cemetery some years back and always wondered why the graves only went back so far. Where were the graves from the middle ages up to the early 1800s? I only found out recently that up until the period when Italy was under the domination of Napoleon most hill towns buried their dead in ossuaries under the floors of their churches. During the period when Napoleon ruled Italy one of the many laws he enacted forced his Italian subjects to dig up all the bones under their church floors and rebury them in proper cemeteries. When Napoleon finally was forced out of Italy his laws remained...  

South of the cemetery hill the land falls away to mixed farm and grazing land dotted with silver fray olive groves. This years there have been big problems with the olive fly in central Italy and in areas like the Sabina where organic olive farming is the norm there have been little or no olives harvested, so we have no local olive oil until sometime next year. What a disaster! We are all praying for a very cold winter to kill off the fly.

Our road as it heads southward reaches the bottom of a large hill covered in a mixed oak forest. Shaded, well marked hiking trails crisscross its flanks. A paved road leads up from Via Roma to a Benedictine Monastery. The modern name of this hill is Montefiolo. In medieval times its Latin name was mons filiorum Ugonis comities, the Mountain of the Sons of Count Hugh. Count Hugh's family had a castle on top of this hill until it as destroyed in 1328 during struggles between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Naples.

In 1391 the hill and its surrounding pastureland was ceded to Casperia, then known as Aspra, on the condition that a church and a home for two monks who would pray for the souls of Count Hugh and his successors be built on top. It took the people of Aspra 167 years to start work on the convent and the Church of the Holy Saviour. These buildings were completed some time after 1560 and a community of Franciscan Friars lived on the hill up until Napoleonic times.

Here and there as we walked around the east flank of Montefiolo we were able to enjoy some wonderful views of Roccantica, the hill town immediately south of Casperia.

Roccantica - the Old Fortress rises in the distance
Everywhere we looked, the hills were covered in beautiful silver green olive groves... For 2014-2015 anyway, their beauty is truly heartbreaking as there is no harvest... economic benefit for the farmers of the Sabina, not to mention most of central Italy... and no beautiful green local olive oil for us for a while...

Before we know it, we have arrived at the frazione or sub-village of Paranzano where our Roman ruins are. In 2009 when we first came to Casperia we enjoyed two very amazing al fresco meals at an Agriturismo called Gusto Al Borgo, then located in this farmhouse below in Paranzano. Paola and Franco have since moved their restaurant from this location to the Palazzo Massari inside Casperia's walls where they continue to serve epic meals to happy guests.

These days, their original location in the farmhouse outside the walls is still an agriturismo which is now called Il Terebinto. Everything I have heard about Terebinto is good, so I can't wait to have a chance to eat there.  

Il Terebinto... former location of Gusto Al Borgo

What is interesting about Il Terebinto's location is that it is built atop Roman ruins. This was not obvious the first couple of times I visited. It is only obvious if you look closely at the old stone wall that sticks out at the southern corner of their property. The agriturismo is likely built atop Paranzano's villa's ruins. The diamond patterned stonework called Opus Reticulatum was used by the ancient Romans from as early as the 1st century BC. These walls therefore are anywhere from 2100 to 1700 years old.  

Kathy and Colin beside the Opus Reticulatum walls near Il Terebinto Agriturismo

According to Casperia historian Lorenzo Capanna, the Via Roma near Il Terebinto follows the route of an ancient Roman road that was paved with hexagonal basalt paving stones similar to those we can still see at Rome's Via Appia Antica. The ancient Roman paving stones were still visible up to the late 19th century. 

Further down the road are larger ruins and more Opus Reticulatum. These apparently belonged to the Thermae or bath house of the Villa of Paranzano.

The villa in Paranzano is reputed to have belonged to Marcus Antonius Pallas, the powerful freedman of Antonia Minor, the daughter of Mark Anthony and the mother of Emperor Claudius. The name Paranzano apparently derives from Pallantianum, a reference to the land and the villa owned by Pallas. Marcus Antonius 
Bernard Hepton in the role of  M. A. Pallas in I, Claudius
Pallas figures prominently in Robert Graves novel I Claudius and the TV series that grew out of it. 

Several significant archeological artifacts and cultural treasures were unearthed at Paranzano's villa site. Sadly, the two magnificent marble nymphs unearthed here in 1871 were carted out of the Sabina and sold off to foreign owners. Today, one is housed in the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, while the other is on display in the Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen. 

Images from "La romanizzazione della Sabina tiberina" by Mara Sternini

Here is a better picture of the nymphe housed in the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. What a sad loss of Sabine regional cultural heritage!

Not far from the Paranzano villa site, in the olive tree dotted fields to the side of the road, are a number of well-like entrances that lead to an underground pre-Roman Sabine aqueduct. This aqueduct, which travels for hundreds of metres underground, is often explored by local speleologists. Centuries of lime deposits have significantly narrowed much of the underground waterway but much of it is still accessible.

An aqueduct of this size and length would seem to indicate that under the fertile ground of Casperia's olive groves and sheep pastures lay not only Roman villa ruins, but perhaps also the ancient remains of an ancient Sabine town or city. There are those who claim that present day Casperia is the location of the ancient Sabine city Casperia which was mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid. Aspra in Sabina was renamed Casperia in the late 1940s not only to avoid confusion with another Aspra in Sicily, but to increase the hill  town's prestige through honouring this ancient legend. 

Not far from the visible villa ruins stands the small country church Madonna della Neve, or Our Lady of The Snow. The original church dates to medieval times, was rebuilt in 1585 and restored in 1652. It is named after a supposed miraculous June snowfall in Rome in the 300s which resulted in the founding of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica on the Esquiline Hill. There are a number of significant frescoes inside the church... Though I have not yet done so one day I plant arrange with the Proloco of Casperia to get the key and have a look inside.

A little further down the road is a large stone tower that leans ominously toward the road. Apparently this is the remains of the stone core of a large funerary monument. 

Here and there among the rough limestone and Roman cement are ancient brick fragments. 

Colin, Kathy and I stood for a long time beside the monument imagining what this valley must have looked like in Ancient Roman times. As we were doing this I noticed that the funerary monuments shadow resembled that of a sitting human figure. It was almost as if we were being watched by a ghost from the past.

I took this second photo with just our shadows... I wonder if anyone else has noticed this before.

It was time to head back to town and have something to eat. As we turned to head back home I took this shot of Monte Soratte framed between some olive trees. Monte Soratte, as I have mentioned in many of my blog posts, was a sacred mountain to the Etruscans, Faliscans, Sabines and later Romans who lived in the Tiber Valley. During World War II, Monte Soratte served as the headquarters of the retreating Nazi army. There are rumours that there may even be Nazi treasure buried somewhere under the mountain.

Close by the ruin of the funerary monument was an old ruined farm house. It probably is not that old compared to a lot of the other things we had seen today, but it seems that it too is built on a Roman foundation.

Roman foundation under abandoned stone farmhouse with funerary monument in the distance
All over the Sabina you see beautiful old abandoned farm houses by the road.  This one that we saw on the way back to Casperia had a number of Latin inscriptions on it indicating that it was restored in 1935. You wonder what the story of this house is... how old it is. who built it... who lived there... and why it was abandoned... 

Rather than take our original route back to Casperia, I suggested to Kathy and Colin that we take an alternative route around the west side of Montefiolo... the fray line shown below. 

This route is one of those so called strada bianca or white roads.... 

A ruined farm house
It was mostly unpaved, and as we crossed over Montefiolo there were times when I was afraid I might lose our way on us... Then I remembered by GPS AP on my cell phone.

What was interesting about this route is that here and there along the mountain path there were large stone stairs similar to the ones inside Casperia's castle walls... I wondered how old these were and who built them and why. Did they belong to the original castle that once stood atop Montefiolo, or did they have something to do with the medieval convent? 

The first time we saw these stairs was back in September when Richard and I were guided along this route by a man named Claudio Petrucelli who is the uncle of a friend of ours. Claudio seemed to think that these steps had something to do with an old ox cart route through the valley but I am not sure.

Besides the mysterious steps, there was another reason why I had hoped that Kathy and Colin would be into taking this alternate route and that was the amazing views of Casperia we were afforded by the various view points along the way. 

We arrived back in Casperia just as the noon time Angelus bells began to ring... We walked by the arquebus hole, entered the Porta Romana and with one last trudge we made it up the cobbled steps of the trappolatoia to Piazza Umberto I where we enjoyed a couple of well deserved prosecchi before heading off to lunch.

I had fun taking Kathy and Colin on a walking tour of Casperia's countryside. After we did it I realized just how much I miss doing my History Walks in Vancouver. This February I have to head back to Canada to do some other work but I plan to resurrect my tours while I am there. I will offer my regular Saturday morning history walks of Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood Strathcona from February 21st to March 21st. These public tours start at 10am and depart from 696 East Hastings Street (at Heatley Avenue) and last about two to two and a half hours. The cost is $20 per person.

At one time last year, before we moved to Italy, these tours were rated 12th of 140 things to do in Vancouver by TripAdvisor. To reserve a space, or to book a private tour during this period, please e-mail me at historywalks (at) 

Private tours are available in English, Japanese, and now Italian.